People

Rising Visionaries Who Turn the Virtual Into Realities

‘Next TV’ honors inaugural Founders on the Rise Award winners — entrepreneurs who take digital video from risk to reward 6/05/2017 8:00 AM Eastern
The inaugural recipients of the Next TV Founders on the Rise award (l. to r.): Ashley Crowder, Carissa Flocken, Brian Musburger, James Norman and Van Toffler

The inaugural recipients of the Next TV Founders on the Rise award lead some of the hottest new companies in digital video, located at the busy intersection of video, media and technology. They are practical visionaries whose big ideas encompass virtual reality, augmented reality and a new approach to audience research data, as well as the next waves of video production and sports programming. Their companies’ innovations cover a lot of ground:

■ Led by Ashley Crowder, Vntana hologram technology opens a new world for advertising and promotion.
■ At Entrypoint, Carissa Flocken’s consumer- and creator-friendly approach to interactive, 360-degree video pushes the boundaries of VOD, streaming and advertising.
Brian Musburger’s Vegas Stats and Information Network (VSiN) offers a new species of sports programming.
■ Pilotly, created by James Norman, is changing research and evaluation of content and the over-the-top user experience.
■ With Gunpowder & Sky, Van Toffler offers a new creative home for video content creators.

While their business innovations may be futuristic, these honorees have all the qualities of the classic entrepreneur. Passionate and tenacious, they are risk-takers who can spot a hidden customer need from miles away, conceive a product to solve the problem, and then build the team and round up the capital to bring that product to market.

Four of these honorees will participate in a panel discussion at the Next TV Summit NYC spring conference on Thursday, June 15, at Convene. As panelists, they will talk about their paths to success so far, including insight into the trends in the market, investors, and mistakes and victories experienced along the way. Van Toffler will offer his insights at the Next TV Summit NYC Fall on Oct. 18. For much more information about the Next TV Summit, visit nexttvsummit.com/spring/.

Ashley Crowder
CEO and Co-founder, Vntana

The Company Line: Vntana (the name is a stylized version of the Spanish word for “window”) has built the first interactive hologram system with social media integration and data collection capabilities. The technology solutions include hardware to project holographic images and software to easily create interactive hologram content, supported by the Vntana cloud platform for easy data collection and content distribution. The company’s core product, “Hollagram,” combines real-time holographic video capture with interactive gesture control, allowing consumers to experience augmented reality in groups and without wearables. Founded in 2012 by Ashley Crowder and chief operating officer Ben Conway, Vntana began with experiential marketing events and is now involved in long-term leases and permanent installations. Based in Van Nuys, Calif., the company has 10 full-time employees and 50 contractors.

Founding Fodder: After receiving a master’s degree in engineering management from the University of Southern California, Crowder worked as a refinery planner for BP, but always wanted to start her own company. A fan of live music, she was fascinated with the light shows and the production side of concert events. Vntana began as a way for artists to perform in multiple locations at the same time. Clients such as Pepsi, Nike and Nickelodeon now work with the company to create interactive live events and advertising. Aquafina created a hologram of Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell, giving fans the opportunity to interact with the player at the team’s 2017 home opener. For his summer concert tour last year, Rob Thomas worked with Vntana to create a hologram karaoke experience. Fans could perform a duet with Thomas’s hologram and then receive a video to share on social media.

Crowder said the biggest challenge for her young company has been choosing where to focus. With so many possible applications for Hollagram, Vntana is concentrating on advertising. “It’s [a question of] who’s paying you?” she said. “[Advertising] is where we see really solving a problem and being very valuable. You can engage consumers, it’s a fun VIP experience and you can learn a lot about them in the process.”

Crowder is also deeply engaged in getting young women excited about engineering and entrepreneurship. She works with After School All Stars and Skillify, community programs that encourage elementary and high school students to pursue STEM. “When I was growing up, the only examples [of engineering careers] you heard about [were] fighter jets and military equipment. I try to show other examples … that will resonate with them and show them what you can do with engineering.”

Carissa Flocken
CEO, Entrypoint

The Company Line: Entrypoint is a 360 video player and uploader that allows viewers easy access to 360 video with no buffering, apps or headset required, and with one-click sharing to social media. The company’s product, launching this summer, allows video creators to make interactive video that users engage with over the web. The tool is described as a mix of Adobe and Squarespace for interactive video, letting creators add interactivity simply and embed content. The company is also a media lab, interested in expanding and improving its toolkit for 360 interactivity by experimenting with premium content creators on the features of their dreams. Founded by Carissa Flocken and Ben Doyle in 2015, Entrypoint and its eight employees are based in New York.

Founding Fodder: An aspiring science-fiction filmmaker, Flocken worked as an investment analyst with hedge fund Bridgewater Associates after graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in complex systems. Flocken and her Bridgewater colleague Doyle ditched their jobs and headed to Los Angeles, intending to produce a virtual reality movie that would allow viewers to be a part of the action. After the reality of existing VR technology sidelined their original plan, the pair decided to create a web-based solution to tackle the high cost and complexity of creating interactive content. They founded Entrypoint when Flocken was 23. In 2016, the company gained funding from several venture capital firms.

“I always try to take the path that I know the least about and seems the most challenging,” Flocken said. “I was passionate about a new way of storytelling.” As a student, Flocken helped edit work by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who became a mentor. Surrounding herself with strong mentors enabled her to make the leap into her new venture. “My general philosophy is, just start and soon enough you’ll be an expert. … Everything feels like a challenge at first, but when you look back, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal.” At Entrypoint, Flocken enjoys dealing with a different challenge every week. “It’s really fun to solve complex problems on the fly.”

Five years down the road, Flocken said: “I see a future where video is interactive. Click on the video and it responds to your click. Tilt it a certain way and it’ll change what’s showing. So the video isn’t linear; it’s responsive.”

Brian Musburger
CEO, Vegas Stats & Information Network (VSiN)

The Company Line: After a February 2017 Super Bowl Sunday kickoff event, the Vegas Stats & Information Network officially launched online Feb. 27 at VSiN.com. The network provides sports gambling news to fans on multiple platforms. Described as CNBC for sports bettors, the network covers sports wagering in the same way business networks cover the stock market. VSiN’s live-streamed content originates from a fishbowl studio in the center of the South Point Casino sports book in Las Vegas, led by TV-sports legend and lead host Brent Musburger (Brian Musburger’s uncle) with a team of well-known sports reporters. Currently available to 33 million SiriusXM Radio subscribers and online, and attracting 1 million listeners per week, the network is pursuing video distribution in time for the National Football League season.

Founding Fodder: For more than 15 years, Brian Musburger was a talent agent in Chicago, where he negotiated more than $250 million in sports, broadcasting and media contracts and endorsement deals for a diverse client base of entertainment and sports figures including coaches, sports franchise owners and executives. Sports was something of a family business: Brian worked with his father at the talent agency, and his uncle Brent is one of the most prominent personalities in the history of sports television. Brian was always fascinated by the predictions of Las Vegas line makers. “I would always track what Las Vegas thought would happen in a game, and was regularly stunned by their accuracy,” he said. “I started to learn more about predictive analytics.” Frustrated with the level of discourse and yelling on sports talk shows, he thought there was a better way to discuss sports. VSiN was Musburger’s solution to the problem. Involving his well-known uncle in his plans made the network a “startup with a head start.”

The greatest challenge this founder has faced is fighting the negative image of sports betting. Pushing back against the popular image of cigar-chomping types in seedy back rooms, Musburger compares the Las Vegas sports bookmakers to Wall Street traders, using the same analytics software and principles. “There’s no more credible source for sports content than the guys at the sports books,” he said. Rather than creating good story lines, as many broadcasters like to do, “Las Vegas is focused on outcomes, looking at how past performance can predict future results. To me, that was a deeper way of looking at sports.”

James Norman
CEO and Co-founder, Pilotly

The Company Line: Pilotly launched in 2016 as an advanced research platform for media creators. The service helps innovators securely gather detailed feedback from target audiences to better inform creative and business decisions. Offering a technological solution to the limitations of in-person focus groups, Pilotly collects and analyzes feedback from users anywhere in the world. The service is valuable to television and movie producers as well as marketing and advertising agencies. Current clients include NBCUniversal, Ovation TV and Otter Media, among others.

Founding Fodder: Serial entrepreneur and University of Michigan electrical engineering graduate James Norman founded his first online company in 1996. He moved to Los Angeles after graduation to design cars, but was attracted to media and entertainment, with special interest in OTT video consumption and consumer behavior. In 2008 he founded Ubi Video, one of the first aggregators of streaming video. After selling Ubi, Norman developed a la carte streaming service GroupFlix.

On the (unsuccessful) hunt for GroupFlix funding, Norman became interested in the data that Netflix and other large distributors used in their business decisions. After delivering the bad news about GroupFlix, he asked creators how they gathered the data they needed to be successful. “They told me about focus group methodology,” Norman recalled. “They said a lot about norms, a lot about how they’d been doing it this way for a long time, but not a lot about how they’d improved it considering that the way people watch television, the way it’s distributed and how it’s created have all changed.” He decided to study with the people who created the traditional research methods, many of whom were ready to retire and eager to discuss their work. Now, rather than subjecting focus-group participant comments to an interviewer’s interpretation, Pilotly algorithms analyze thousands of responses to open-ended questions to identify patterns and themes. As a result of his experience founding Pilotly, Norman believes the most valuable quality for an entrepreneur is, “knowing when to change direction.”

Norman’s approach to innovation in the entertainment and media industry is to pursue evolution and advancement rather than disruption. “Telling someone you want to disrupt their billion-dollar industry is kind of absurd.” He finds that offering successful executives a way to be even more successful works better.

In his limited spare time, Norman runs Transparent Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to giving women, African-American and Latino founders access to capital to grow their tech companies.

Van Toffler
Co-founder and CEO, Gunpowder & Sky

The Company Line: Gunpowder & Sky is a global studio dedicated to creating, marketing and distributing video content independent of form, genre or platform. The company collaborates with emerging and established talent to generate premium video content ranging from 90-second to 90-minute stories on various platforms. With in-house development, production, marketing and distribution capabilities, the company operates as a full 360 studio and oversees a library of more than 1500 titles.

Gunpowder & Sky’s numerous creative partners include Hyde Park, Blumhouse, Caviar, DIGA, Full Fathom Five, Bona Fide Productions, Adaptive Studios and Den of Thieves. It has investment and strategic partnerships with leading social video studios Cut and Shareability. Gunpowder & Sky has recently launched projects including Spotify’s most viewed series, Drawn & Recorded, and the Herbalife exposé documentary Betting on Zero, the top documentary on iTunes for five consecutive weeks.

Upcoming projects include Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours, starring Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke and Nick Offerman; the film adaption of Jeff Hart’s novel Eat, Brains, Love; and the Jackass-style, next-generation stunt series, Too Stupid to Die.

Founding Fodder: Toffler was an MTV Networks/Viacom executive for 28 years; as CEO of Viacom’s Music & Logo Group, he was responsible for the programming conglomerate’s music services (MTV, VH1, Palladia and others). He created MTV Films, introducing MTV to the early digital world, took the networks into new content formats, spearheaded the creation of Logo and brought MTV online.

Toffler left Viacom in 2015 to create Gunpowder & Sky. “I knew I wanted to go back to creating, making, developing, producing and marketing,” he said. “And hell, there was a renaissance happening for premium content on all platforms, so why not jump in and get dirty? After all, I like dirt and chaos; too much order and cleanliness makes me uncomfortable.” When he couldn’t clear the rights for his first choice of company name (Below the Radar), Toffler went for Gunpowder & Sky, part of a favorite Aimee Mann lyric.

Toffler said the most valuable qualities for an entrepreneur are “resilience and stupidity. It’s OK to ask dumb questions as long as you become a tireless cultural sponge and keep learning from your errors and mistakes.” He sees the future of video in infinitely variable shapes, sizes and platforms. “Don’t be precious about how your art gets consumed,” he advised.

Want to read more stories like this?
Get our Free Newsletter Here!